Natural Dyes for Basketry Materials

Although I have occasionally dyed cane, willow and raffia experimentally in madder and indigo dyebaths, I have not done extensive tests with a range of dyes on basketry materials. Recently, Sussex basket-maker, Jackie Sweet, spent a day here with me and we experimented with some natural dyes on willow, cane and Phormium tenax (New Zealand flax).

Jackie Sweet is a talented and accomplished basket-maker, with a wealth of knowledge and experience, and her baskets range from more robust traditional English willow baskets to delicate woven containers, which are works of art in themselves. I have always loved baskets and I have some from many parts of the world in my collection, so the possibility of assisting Jackie in using natural dyes as part of the creative basketry process was something I was looking forward to.

Of course, the natural brown, beige or tan colours of the basketry materials would mean that the dye colours achieved would not have the brightness and clarity of colours achieved on white or cream-coloured fibres. Jackie’s main aim was to achieve deep colours that would provide contrasts with the natural colours of the basketry materials and enable her to incorporate more elaborate pattern designs in her work. She had treated some of the willow and cane in alum beforehand, by soaking the materials in a solution of 10% alum. This meant we were able to compare the results on both alum-mordanted and unmordanted materials.  I decided to experiment first with indigo, madder and onion skins, as I thought strong dyes would be needed, especially if the undyed materials were brown in colour. We also used iron and washing soda as colour modifiers.

We simmered the fibres for about 30 minutes in the prepared dyebaths and the results were quite good, especially on the alum-mordanted materials. The iron and washing soda modifiers intensified the colours but the green I had anticipated from onion skins plus iron did not appear. Overall, Jackie was pleased with the results and decided to experiment further, possibly with some natural dye extracts.

I suggested it might be worth experimenting with cool dyeing, using large plastic containers, as this would enable Jackie to dye larger quantities in a single dyebath. However, while cool dyeing should work well with indigo, I suspect strong dye solutions and considerable patience might be necessary for this method to work with other dyes. I also recommended extracting the dye colour by simmering first, so the dyebath would be hot when the fibres were added.

All in all, I spent a thoroughly enjoyable day with Jackie and I look forward to hearing about her progress and to working with her again.

The first photo below shows the undyed materials and the second photo shows the dyed materials on the left with some undyed materials on the right for comparison. The third photo shows a woven design worked by Jackie using naturally-coloured and madder-dyed Phormium tenax.









5 replies
  1. Sandra Rude
    Sandra Rude says:

    Madder works well in a long, cool dyebath. I've used this method on silk, leaving the silk in a bucket with the madder as long as a week or more. Some dyers have let the yarn soak for a month. So for madder, and for any of the wood dyes (walnut, for example) a long cool soak can be used.

    • says:

      Like Sandra, I’ve had excellent results from madder used in cool dyebaths. One just needs to be patient and let madder work its magic over time.

  2. Sandra Rude
    Sandra Rude says:

    p.s. Tell Jackie I love her woven piece – just like an undulating twill in woven cloth!

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